Psychedelic Guides Receive Training at UC Berkeley
Psychedelics are making a comeback after being prohibited by the federal Controlled Substances Act in 1970. This law, signed by then-President Richard Nixon, effectively put an end to promising research into the substances’ therapeutic and medical potential. In recent, approved therapeutic research, psychedelics have been demonstrated to ease mental distress and even addiction. As a result, efforts to legalize their use are increasing.
Psychedelic interest is skyrocketing, and states such as Oregon and Colorado are legalizing psilocybin for use as a mental health therapy. Both states have chosen to authorize its usage in therapy centers supervised by mental health professionals. Simultaneously, an increasing number of clinical trials are underway, giving participants the opportunity to take psychedelic substances to address problems such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD – once again, under the supervision of a clinician or guide.
Normally, when someone takes something like shrooms to enjoy a psychedelic journey, things like staying hydrated, playing their favourite songs, or lighting their favourite incense can help make their experience more enjoyable and relaxing. In the right setting, however, shrooms or other psychedelics can be used as a form of therapy, which is precisely what’s being taught at UC Berkeley.
What’s New at UC Berkeley?
In a new certificate program, the UC Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics has begun teaching doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists, and chaplains how to safely and efficiently facilitate mind-bending psychedelic experiences to help heal and care for patients.
In an interview, Tina Trujillo, associate professor, and faculty director of the nine-month certificate program stressed that psychedelic substances on their own are not a solution for profound experiences.
“One of the misconceptions is that we’re handing somebody a psychedelic and then just sitting with them; the skill set required is far more sophisticated than that,” said Trujillo. “For us, this is really a way to bridge the research and the practice, and that means professionalizing a field that doesn’t necessarily have agreed-upon standards for quality, safety, and ethical practices just yet.”
She also wants people to understand the difference between a “trip sitter,” who helps others feel safe during a psychedelic trip and advanced professionals who have been trained as “facilitators,” who can help an individual navigate the powerful thoughts and feelings that can arise during the 8-plus hour journey.
In December last year, applications for the program’s second cohort opened. This training comes at a time when more governments, including the Berkeley City Council, are debating loosening psychedelic prohibitions, and the Drug Enforcement Administration has increased its quota for the production of psilocin (a counterpart to the more commonly known psilocybin), MDMA, DMT, and LSD for research purposes.
What Does the Program Focus On?
The curriculum at UC Berkeley is now focusing on how a facilitator might conscientiously assist patients in using mushrooms, but students are also aware of how other traditions have employed psychedelic substances, such as Ayahuasca and Peyote, for health and spiritual care.
Trujillo, who has worked in the School of Education for 14 years and the Center for the Science of Psychedelics since it opened in 2020, said her goal is to help develop a model for psychedelic guides who are trusting, supportive, and have knowledge—ideally first-hand – of the sometimes mystical phenomena these drugs can conjure, as well as how to best use the long-vilified natural substances as medicine.
“There’s the perception out there that if you ingest one of these substances, that substance in and of itself is going to lead to some quick fix,” Trujillo said. “But if you look at how psilocybin and mushrooms have been used historically, they’ve been used in these communal settings where you know who the healer is, you have a relationship with that person, and that person is a part of the community. That’s not the way Western science is focused, so if we frame (these experiences) in that way, I think we’re missing or misunderstanding how some of these substances and plants have actually been used over the years.”
Trujillo explains that their students are taught about the ancestral histories of mushrooms, which existed hundreds or thousands of years before the Age of Enlightenment, as well as the ceremonial use of psychedelic plants. They educate professionals on ethics, what it means to deliver this type of treatment with the utmost ethical integrity and safety, and some of the desirable attributes of a psychedelic facilitator. They also learn about neurology and how it can help them in their work.
According to Trujillo, the FDA has permitted programs like UC Berkeley’s to employ federally prohibited drugs to research how small doses can alter healthy volunteers’ perception and representation, frequently utilizing a combination of functional magnetic resonance imaging and “thoughtfully created” therapist-driven psychophysics.
Despite the fact that the field is still in its early stages, thousands of people, including many veterans, have already flocked to clinical trials on university campuses and weekend therapy retreats in Mexico to treat suicidal ideation, cognitive impairment, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, depression, and anxiety.
Michael Pollan, an award-winning journalist, and UC Berkeley professor working with the Center for the Science of Psychedelics, has long argued that guides and therapists are required to fully study the advantages and risks of the modern push to end psychedelic prohibition.
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